Breakfast briefing with Kevin Jon Heller
‘Contested Legality: Power, Politics, and International Law During the Vietnam War’
This talk explores some of the most interesting — and most controversial — international law issues that arose during the Vietnam War. It begins by briefly examining whether the US’s direct military involvement in Vietnam was consistent with Art. 2(4) of the UN Charter, the prohibition of the use of force. It then turns to four issues of the jus in bello: whether the US bombing campaigns in North Vietnam were consisted with the principles of distinction and proportionality; whether free-fire zones and the use of napalm were lawful means and methods of warfare; whether the parties to the conflict properly classified detained fighters; and whether civilians were properly treated. The talk then concludes by discussing the legal legacy of the Vietnam War, with a particular emphasis on how the war radically transformed how the US armed forces made use of military lawyers.
About the speaker:
Kevin Jon Heller is Professor of International Law and Security at the University of Copenhagen’s Centre for Military Studies. He is also Professor of Law at the Australian National University. His books include The Nuremberg Military Tribunals and the Origins of International Criminal Law (Oxford University Press 2011), The Hidden Histories of War Crimes Trials (Oxford University Press 2013) (edited with Gerry Simpson), and Situating Contingency in International Law (Oxford University Press 2021) (edited with Ingo Venzke). He was also lead editor of the Oxford Handbook of International Criminal Law (Oxford University Press 2020) and is currently co-writing a book with Samuel Moyn (Yale) entitled The Rule of War: Vietnam and International Law.
Professor Heller has extensive practical experience in international law. He was involved in the International Criminal Court’s negotiations over the crime of aggression, worked as Human Rights Watch’s external legal advisor on the trial of Saddam Hussein, and was the plaintiffs’ sole expert witness in Salim v Mitchell, a successful Alien Tort Statute case in the US against the psychologists who designed the CIA’s torture program. He currently serves as Senior Advisor for International Humanitarian and Criminal Law for UNITAD in Iraq and as the primary expert for the legal team defending Ramzi bin al-Shibh, one of the defendants in the 9/11 trial. He is also the co-editor-in-chief of the international-law blog Opinio Juris, which is sponsored by the International Commission of Jurists.